The Other Keoladeo

 

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It’s wonderful weather. The rain is hanging in the air. It has already rained some time back. It’s densely overcast. Though it is 5 in the afternoon but seems like 7. The greenery is all washed and seem happy and radiant. So romantic.

Sunayan Bhai and I are at Shanti Kutir, the good old Forest Rest House of Keoladeo National Park. The rest house is appropriately named, Shanti means peace/silence, Kutir means modest abode.  We come down from our suite on first floor. Lawns are spread in front, and on both sides. In the central lawn behind a tree, I notice a large brown animal – huge like a horse. Oh! It’s a massive Sambar stag visiting Shanti Kutir. It crosses from central to left lawn. Here is located a pollution monitoring lab of Mathura Petroleum Refinery to study pollution levels at the Park. And can you believe, the Sambar is watching the lab to see, if all is fine!  The animal just ignores us and goes about browsing on low hanging leaves. We also, quietly leave.

This is the other, lesser known side of Keoladeo, famous bird sanctuary and World Heritage Site (UNESCO). We meet the director of the Park, Dr Ajit Uchoi, whose office is next door, just adjacent to FRH complex. He tells us, “there is a population of about 15-16 Sambars in the Park.”

Next morning, we go to visit the Park. There is electric golf cart to take us around. First thing we see is a Go, the Monitor Lizard. It is rushing ahead on the side of the road. Its gait is clumsy. It’s intention to keep to road is clear, we increase cart speed, Go starts running. We get down the cart and walk behind it quietly. We get some pictures but all from behind. We try to run ahead, but it leaves the road and enters into road side bushes. We wait for five minutes and as expected it comes out on the road in leisurely gait. We do not bother it anymore.

A little later, we find a mongoose similarly walking along the road side. But mongoose gait is much graceful. This seems to be on hunt mission. As it walks, it keeps glancing around in the bushes. When we approach too close, it would enter bushes to come out 3-4 minutes later, 10-15 metre ahead, and continue on its mission.

OMG! I see larger number of cattle in the Park after several decades. In late 70s, the park used to be full of it. It was banned in early 80s. Sunayan Bhai explains, “These animals are from adjacent villages and would go away as soon as the water starts filling in lakes.” Several large, hefty bulls are roaming the roads virtually like bullies – Maybe feral animals.

In the afternoon, we start at 5. There is still lot of light. We see one Sambar busy feeding in the lake. It is not bothered by our presence. Its goes on enjoying meal. It’s after months there is water in the lake and fresh vegetation has come alive.

Soon, we see a Nilgai feeding in another lake. I ask the driver to stop for a picture. Sunayan feels ‘no point wasting time on a Nilgai – such a common animal’. I feel, ‘let me take a shot in the particular habitat.’ But our stopping proves useful. We notice commotion at the edge of the water. It’s a massive turtle, one and half feet long carapace is partially visible. Driver tells us, “Probably there are two, one above the other. It’s matting time!”

We reach Keoladeo temple. Laze around and stroll. Sunayan Bhai asks, “Would you like to see bats?” Incidentally, nobody would know better than Sunayan Bhai. He has been director of Keoladeo, and done some landmark work in management of weed and water because of which the Park is alive now. We go to a date palm grove, 200 meter away. Yes, I can see several fruit bats flying in and out of date palms. I can also see, several of them in the trees. Somehow, the situation does not turn to be photogenic – poor light, partially hidden animals, confusing background…We only keep wondering – what fate do bats have – condemned to hand upside down, sleep through the day and be active at night, and in compensation they have body structure which allows them to fly in spite of being a mammal! Bat is the only mammal which can fly. The other so called flying animals can only glide through the air for limited distance.

While we are returning, the Range Officer, Lalit, meets us. Sunayan Bhai gets off the cart and stops to discuss one finer management issue. I keep sitting in the cart. The road is straight. I notice half a km ahead, about a dozen animals hurry across the road from left to right. Can they be Nilgai? The driver feels ‘Sambar’ but I am not convinced.  Soon we try to catch up with these animals. Sunayan tries to watch them through binocular. They have moved some distance. Though the light is fading but he says, “They are neither Nilgai nor Sambar. They are in all probability, Hog Deer.” ‘Hog Deer’, that’s interesting. I am inclined to agree going by the size of the animal I have noticed. Also, Ajit has told us about the presence of good number of Hog Deer in the Park. Incidentally, Hog Deer has disappeared from many of its ranges due to habitat changes. Thus, the  sighting is exciting.

Sunayan tells me, “Black Buck used to be found in large area of the Park but is now locally extinct.” Black Buck is luckily found commonly in many other areas.

As we are returning, the light is fading. And the last surprise turns out to be Cheetal. It is not the animal. We see it so commonly. We have seen it in Keoladeo as well many times. What has taken me by surprise is the number! The herd is spread continuously for about a km. The flush of fresh green grass has attacked animals from the whole area. Immediate thought comes of sighting of large herds in Corbett and Ranthambhore. This has surpassed all. May be around 400-500 animals!

Amazing, Keoladeo has so much to offer beside birds. Indeed, a vibrant landscape.

Pushp

A Cool Herd of Nilgai

We arrive at Haldwani to our family friend Pantji’s (Mr Suresh Pant) home by noon, by Shatabdi Express. My wife accompanies. Pantji has retired from forest service some time ago. Today, it has been fun, food, gossip, and attending a mela (local fair) with Pantji and his wife. Next day the caravan moves. We reach another old friend Karmiyal (Hira Singh Kermiyal) living near Ram Nagar. Karmiyal is also a retired forester. It’s larger group. It’s eating, gossiping, visiting nearby forest.. We all stay with Karmiyal tonight.

Next day, it’s still larger caravan. Another retired forester, Upadhyay ji (Satish Chandra Upadhyay) joins with family. Now we are in two cars.

We are on Ram Nagar-Kalagarh road. This is about 40 km drive in the buffer of famous Corbett Tiger Reserve. The road up to Laldhang is metalled.  Rest of the road is Kuchcha (un-metalled). It passes through biodiversity rich forest.

The forest is technically moist-mix-deciduous and thick. Road is narrow. Every nook and corner brings in new perspective, new sight, some or the other animal. Its excitement and more excitement. There are several seasonal streams approaching this ‘Terai’ area from hills and have broad spans. Terai is land between hills and plains. One such stream fell soon after we pass Dhara Chowki (forest check post). This is extra exciting. As we cross the dry river, on temporary road made by compacting the bed, all shout stop.

We see a herd of six nilgai sitting around in a circle, on a slightly raised part of the river bed on our right. They are not bothered by our arrival. Animal’s security instinct can be clearly seen here. They are roughly sitting in a circle, all facing outwards in different direction – virtually all combined they have a 360 degree view!

We have seen nilgai innumerable times but here bang in the open, all animals sitting cool, with no intension of getting disturbed. It seems they are used to man and vehicle. They are enjoying Sun after chilly winter night.

There is plenty of light. The animals are obliging to be shot. We take ample photos. We take photos in different postures – sitting, walking, galloping…Thoroughly enjoy the drive through forest.

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We reach Kalagarh around 1.30 pm. It’s lavish lunch at the rest house. In the late afternoon we go to different part of forest – fresh air, luxuriant vegetation, calm and quiet, lovely.

Later in the night, the Forest Range Officer, Mr Bhatt joins. As normal, he wants to know how it has been in the forest. Nilgai herd finds specially mention.

Mr Bhatt informs us that this herd is common sight. The group is bold and daring. They are crop raiding lot – during the day they enjoy sun and shine of the forest and during night enjoy the delicious meal of paddy or wheat or mustard… in agricultural fields some way down on the outskirt of the Reserve.

It is a pity that animals are not able to differentiate between forest and field, government or private land. They do not understand boundary. Where there is a barrier created by man, for food, animal would jump across, if possible.

We have an overnight halt at Kalagarh. In the morning, after breakfast we start back to Ram Nagar. We enter the forest gate around 11.30. This is indeed not the right time for wildlife watching. By this time, animals are generally resting – hiding in bushes, high grasses or in deep forest.

But no, as we approach Dhara Chowki stream, nilgai faithfully oblige us again. Today, it is much larger herd, around a dozen animals. The beauty is, this group has a bull also plus several young ones. Today, they are sitting closer to the track in the river bed.

We stand here and watch and admire and photograph.

Maybe due to our prolonged stay, some animals rise. Calves take advantage of mother standing – two young ones of a female start feeding together. They are not bothered by our presence, and use the opportunity to the fullest. They feed for several minutes. I too use the opportunity to the fullest – Take more than 50 shots!

Can you believe, we do see a tiger during the visit but nilgai has found priority in ‘Glimpses of Wilderness’. You know why.

 

Pushp

 

PS : Nilgai or blue bull (Boselaphus tragocamelus) is the largest Asian antelope and is endemic  to the Indian subcontinent. Nilgai is diurnal (active mainly during the day). The animals band together in different type of groups. It’s herbivorous and prefers grasses and herbs, but eats woody plants also.